Asian LGBT Community (Asian Woman Magazine) (2007)
By Anna Nathanson
For the thousands of gay Asian people living in the UK, finding happiness can be a long hard struggle. But as the following case studies testify, there is light at the end of the tunnel…
Bina is a 38-year-old Punjabi lesbian living in the UK. At the age of 19 she was forced to run away from home when her parents found out about her sexuality. “There was a real threat of violence from my family. My brother threatened to pull a knife on me and my parents hired private detectives. I fled my city and went and stayed in a refuge, and after five hard years I got back in touch with my family again. I knew that I had to establish a whole different relationship with them. They know I’m gay but it’s not something that we discuss. I’ve even taken lovers with me to India and stayed with extended family, but again, it’s not something that we talk about. My mother has since accepted the fact that I’m a lesbian, but this has taken years of heartache and struggle”.
Although no concrete statistics are available, it is estimated that there are around 80,000 Asian gay people living in the UK today. This is something that often goes unacknowledged and can result in people feeling like there is no support available to them. For any LGBT (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transexual) person, coming out as gay can be problematic. Factors such as wanting to fit in, prejudice, lack of information as well as heterocentric societal views can complicate the process. But particularly for Asians, there are additional issues to contend with. “The main ones are cultural; religion, marriage, having children, as well as strict family values”, says Bina. “In addition, if you’re living at home, it can be hard to explore your sexuality or meet other LGBT people, and sometimes it feels like you’re the only gay Asian in the world. The media only ever portrays white gay people and so you can end up feeling very isolated”, she says.
Fazal Mahmood, of the social support group Positive East reveals, “We get a lot of calls dealing with issues such as isolation from the family, forced or arranged marriages as well as issues relating to religion”. Peter Abbott from the Forced Marriage Unit at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office adds, “We handle approximately 250-300 cases a year and around 3% of those involve gay or lesbian Asian men and women”. “There’s definitely light at the end of the tunnel however” says Mahmood, “Gay Asians need support from their peers. People need to know that they’re not alone, there are quite a lot of us around”.
Priya is a 21-year-old bisexual Music PR Assistant and model. She lives in London and has Kenyan/South Asian roots. “Before going to University, I hadn’t even had a boyfriend. My family are very strict, so it was only when I started my studies that I came out as bi to my peers. It was a bit weird having an additional thing to tell people, and I was the only Asian girl at my LGBT society at Uni! My close friends all know about my sexuality but my parents don’t. My sister once mentioned it to my mum and she just laughed and brushed it off, she didn’t think she was being serious. I am very open with people I meet, and go out on the gay scene quite a lot. However, I find it hard to meet other bisexual girls and lesbians in London”.
“There is quite a strong gay Asian community and we celebrate occasions like Dawali, Ramadan and Sikh festivals”, offers Bina. There are also many support groups for LGBT Asian people around the country, as well as several club nights, such as Club Kali and Urban Desi, in London. “Some Asians feel like the minority in conventional gay clubs. We offer a safe space to dance, have fun and meet other gay Asians”, says a Club Kali representative.
For most people, the issue of marriage and children is bound to come up at some stage in one’s life. For LGBT people, these issues are more complex. “Being the eldest, there’s a lot of pressure from my family to get married”, says Priya. “To be honest, that’s probably the only way I could ever move out. But I can’t see myself marrying a man, only a woman, and the way I feel now, I will never get married or have children, but I’m not bothered. Marriages are always falling apart these days and I’ve stopped taking the whole concept seriously”.
“For many gay Asians, it’s often a case of ‘what are people going to say if I don’t get married?’” Bina says. “I don’t personally want to get married, but I would like to have children. Before she died, my mother actually blessed my then-girlfriend and I with “kurva chauth”. She asked us; “Do you love each other and will you care for each other when you’re old?”, and then allowed us to fast and even broke the fast with us, and that’s something that is usually reserved for husbands. That was her way of sanctioning the union”.
Another huge factor when it comes to being Asian and gay is religion. “My culture is extremely important to me and I’m very committed to maintaining it. I mark religious festivals and often visit the Temple”, says Bina. “I have heard cases of honour killings. And if you’ve grown up reading religious books that condemn homosexuality, it’s not exactly going to foster a positive self image if you happen to be gay”, she adds. Fazal Mahmood from Positive East is hopeful for the future. “We have been working closely with Imaans, and have established a constructive dialogue. We’ve had positive feedback from them and things are moving forward”.
Despite the set backs in her life, Bina retains a positive outlook. “It’s a great time to be Asian and gay. Things are definitely changing. Even when I go back to India, I can see it. It may seem like a drop in the ocean, but it’s a start, and things can only get better”.
www.planetkiss.org.uk Support group for Asian lesbians
www.safraproject.org Support group for Muslim lesbians
www.imaan.org.uk Social support for LGBT Muslims
www.gayrishta.com An online dating site launching in January 2007 for male and female Asian and Arab LGBTs
www.naz.org.uk 0208 7411879 Provides sexual health advice and support
Positive East/Himat: www.positiveeast.org.uk Support group for South Asian gay men
Comprehensive site offering a wealth of information on LGBT issues: www.stonewall.org.uk
Asian LGBT club nights Kali and Urban Desi:
By Anna Nathanson